Golden finale for farming trio takes Cheltenham back to its roots
After a week dominated by two trainers, Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, and one owner, Michael O’Leary, it was a good old sporting romance that put an end to the bloodstock arms race at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Some of steeplechasing’s roots have branched out to absorb nutrients from beneath the tarmac of Dublin Airport and the concrete of the City but its tap root remains deeply entrenched in the countryside.
So it was apt that a cooperative of farmers, owner Garth Broom, trainer Colin Tizzard and jockey Richard Johnson should combine through the heroic Native River to win Cheltenham’s most cherished prize.
Friday’s Timico Gold Cup was as a good a long-distance duel as you will ever see; 15 runners but essentially a two-horse race from flag-fall to finish; the galloper with unlimited stamina against the talented good looking playboy-turned-Prince-Regent Might Bite who no one really thought would like getting wet feet.
Having never been more than a length apart for three miles and a furlong and having jumped the last in unison, it was only inside that gruelling last uphill furlong that Might Bite’s legs turned to jelly while jump racing’s newest champion, Native River, kept ploughing on finally to shake off his shadow.
Last year Tizzard’s career was on such an upward trajectory that aspirations to be champion trainer looked real but, until Friday, it had been a season to forget.
A bug has laid the yard low this winter, an injury ruled Thistlecrack out of the Gold Cup and his big-hitting patron Alan Potts, the one man with the wherewithal to put it up to O’Leary, Rich Ricci and JP McManus in a horse auction, passed away.
But such is the power of Cheltenham these days his season went from worst to best in 45 surreal minutes, from the moment Native River’s companion on the horsebox from Milborne Port, Kilbricken Storm, won the Albert Bartlett Hurdle to the moment Native River redefined ‘relentless’. A pint of milk will never taste better than it does out of the Gold Cup.
This season has not been plain sailing for Johnson, 40, either. His main stable, Philip Hobbs’s, has also been out of form all season.
And though he is poised to be champion again he has struggled with his hips; the wear and tear of 24 years in the saddle appeared to be not just catching up but overtaking him.
Even he, however, was powerless against the green tide of Ireland for most of the week. But as worried as the British should be about the Irish winning the Betbright Cup by a landslide 17 wins to 11, Irish racing should be more worried.
Because that figure skews the fact that Elliott, with a record-equalling eight wins, and Mullins, with six, could have won it for Ireland on their own.
Nobody wants a return to the days when Ireland could hardly muster a winner and, of course, one should never knock the brilliance of those two trainers but the reason there is a Monopolies Commission is because they are not much good for anyone and as much as the smaller British trainer is not getting a look-in once a year at Cheltenham, this is a daily problem for his Irish counterpart.
I actually like O’Leary. He is approachable, he is provocative but he engages and says it like it is. He knows, too. “There’s going to be a terrible run of luck coming,” he said after his seventh. “I expect there’s going to be blank for the next two or three years.”
What did leave a bitter taste was that six horses never made it home from this Festival – three of them casualties from Friday’s Grand Annual.
It may be a statistical blip but the British Horseracing Authority should reconsider holding a 24-runner, twomile handicap chase as the meeting’s getting out stakes over the New Course which is more difficult than the old one.
Cherished prize: Trainer Colin Tizzard with Gold Cup winner Native River and owners Garth and Anne Broom